Faith Meets World

Reflections on faith in a messed-up but beautiful world

Category: Theology (Page 3 of 24)

Book review: Stanley Hauerwas, The Work of Theology

Work of TheologyI’m not honestly sure how well known Stanley Hauerwas is here in the UK. He has been referred to as America’s most celebrated living theologian, and has also been described as “one of the world’s most influential living theologians”. Hauerwas is Gilbert T. Rowe Professor Emeritus of Divinity and Law at Duke University, and during his illustrious career has penned well over 40 books.

I am mainly aware of Hauerwas because I have a good number of theologically minded American friends. I have The Hauerwas Reader on my shelf and dip into it from time to time, but up to now had not read any substantive work of his from cover to cover. (I had read his Cross-Shattered Christ, but that is a devotional rather than a scholarly work of theology.) Being something of an armchair theologian, when I saw that he had a new book coming out titled The Work of Theology, I was keen to read it to see what useful lessons I could learn from Hauerwas’s long and esteemed career as a theologian and public intellectual.

I suppose I expected this book – just from its title – to be some kind of treatise or gathered reflection on what theology is. On one level, I was disappointed, because the book is a lot more complex than that. But on another level, I was very satisfied: it does indeed act as a kind of survey or primer of theology – what it is, why it matters, and what the theological state of affairs is in the world today – just not in the format I expected.

To structure the rest of this brief review, I’ll describe The Work of Theology using three adjectives: academic, referential and practical.

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What is God like?

5546445579_fce4e05671_oI am generally in agreement with those who say that the most important theological question we can ask ourselves is, “What is God like?”

I think this is a question we humans have been asking ourselves for many thousands of years. And I also think how we answer this question is very much determinative of our general worldview and how we conduct our lives. In other words, it is not simply an abstract, philosophical question: it has a direct bearing on the here and now.

You may have heard the expression, “You are like the God you worship”. I think there’s a lot of truth in this saying. In other words, if you believe in an aggressive, warlike God, you are quite likely to exhibit aggressive, warlike behaviour; conversely, if you believe in a compassionate, peace-loving God, you are quite likely to direct your efforts towards achieving peaceful and non-violent coexistence with your neighbours in this world.

The Old Testament is, in many ways, an argument or debate between those with different answers to the question, “What is God like?” Through the Torah and the historical books, the wisdom writings and the prophets, we find competing images of God: some depict him as a punctilious law-keeper determined to mete out punishment at the slightest offence; some paint him as a warrior God who protects his servants but is merciless to his enemies; yet others portray him as a God of endless compassion and mercy whose patience never runs out.

The question is, which of these depictions of God is right? What is God really like?

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Cognitive dissonance

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The image above was shared by a friend on Facebook yesterday. I thought it was too good not to comment on, at least briefly.

Which of you if, while listening to the news, hears of an episode of large-scale ethnic cleansing, will not rush to condemn it as utterly barbaric and ungodly? (And let’s face it, there’s been no shortage of examples in the last decade or two, from the former Yugoslavia to West Africa, not forgetting ISIS’s atrocious actions in Iraq and Syria.)

And yet, when Christians read of Israel’s slaughter of indigenous Canaanite populations in the Old Testament, any remotely similar response often seems to be lacking.

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Some thoughts on thinking theologically

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In recent years, I’ve become quite passionate about theology. Having recently begun to read Stanley Hauerwas’s latest book The Work of Theology (review to follow in due course), I felt inspired to share a few thoughts about what theology is, or at least what I, from my decidedly amateur perspective, perceive it to be. (I hasten to add that what follows consists solely of my own thoughts, uninformed by dictionary definitions or anyone else’s formal statement of what theology is. So if I say something nonsensical, the fault is entirely mine.)

Semantically speaking, theology is, of course, the study of God. But here we immediately run into a problem, because the very word study for many people implies dusty academic libraries and stacks of impenetrably complex and somewhat abstract books and essays. And study can be these things. But it need not fit the image of tedious labour that it so often attracts. (As for myself, while I’m passionate about theology, I have no formal theological training, though I’d love to remedy this one day, if time and money permit).

I have come to think of theology not just as the study of God in the academic sense but as thinking about God. Not thinking in the way that we might think about that nice holiday we had last summer, or what we might eat for lunch, or how to solve a thorny mathematical problem; rather, theology is deliberate, clear thinking about God.

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Some brief thoughts on fulness of life

The word abundance carved in a log of wood, outdoors on grass and under a cloudy sky

“I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly.”
(John 10:10)

This verse, in my experience, surely ranks among the favourite scriptures of contemporary western Christians.

After all, who could not want the abundant life? Who could refuse the promise – from the lips of Jesus, no less – of more and better?

However, call me a cynic (go on, call me a cynic!), but I see a couple of problems here.

First, our idea of what constitutes the abundant life is substantially influenced by the consumer capitalist culture in which we live. Ask any person in the street – or, more pertinently, in the church – what they understand by the “abundant life”, and chances are they’ll respond with something along the lines of more influence, a better job, more money, more status, more possessions, a bigger house… After all, how can an adjective like “abundant” mean anything other than bigger and better?!

In sum, the culture in which we live has exclusively defined “abundant” as clearly meaning nothing other than more, bigger, and better. And a large section of the church – notably the charismatic and Pentecostal wing thereof – has gone right along with this understanding. What else could Jesus have possibly meant? What else can “blessing” mean other than more money, more health… in short, more power and influence?

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Original sin fail

340729493_bf6dbe0ae1_oOne of the foundations of evangelical thought is the doctrine of original sin. We mainly have Augustine to thank for this gem. Thanks, dude.

The idea is that Adam sinned, and thereafter his sinfulness was passed down through his bloodline to all of humanity.

But let’s just think about this for a moment.

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The imperfect Jesus

midimanYeah, I know, some of you might think I’m a heretic just for that title. Or maybe you think I’m just being provocative or going for clickbait. Bear with me.

Many of us Christians have been conditioned to believe that Jesus must have been perfect. But where does this belief come from? Well, it originates from the confession that Jesus was both fully God and fully man. This confession goes back at least as far as the Chalcedonian Creed of 451 CE, of which it was a central component. While I have no wish to argue with the conclusions of that creed, I do want to challenge the resulting widespread notion that Jesus must therefore have been perfect. Or rather, I want to challenge quite what we mean when we say Jesus was perfect.

The logic is as simple as can be: Jesus was both fully God and fully man; if Jesus was fully God, that must mean he was perfect, right?

The first and biggest problem with this idea is that perfection is an entirely subjective quality. I could play you one of my favourite songs and tell you, “This song is just perfect”. But you might, for whatever reason, find the song awful, in which case you’d be hard pressed to acknowledge its supposed perfection. Since there’s no universally acknowledged standard of perfection on which we can all agree, we’re generally forced to accept that perfection is in the eye of the beholder. And everyone is mostly fine with this.

Except when it comes to Jesus. When it comes to Jesus, we all have to agree that he was perfect. No ifs, no buts.

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